As reported by The [UK] Telegraph, a recent revision of the 10 Commandments called just10 is getting rave reviews from hundreds of churches across the UK that have begun using the teaching program with their congregations. As I read about the just10 series, visited their website, and considered what I saw, I was brought to a surprising but important question: Just what is the purpose of the 10 Commandments?
“I like to use them for neck and shoulder stretches before I exercise!”
“Jordan, that may be the dumbest question I’ve ever heard. Everybody knows what the 10 Commandments are for: telling people what to do / not to do.” Granted. There is, however, much more to the matter than just that. Rest assured, we aren’t merely splitting hairs today–quite the contrary, in fact. This is important stuff. Using the New Testament as our standard and church tradition as our model, we are led to conclude that just10 is a woefully inadequate reconstruction of the 10 Commandments due to its failure to point people to Christ. This I will now attempt to demonstrate.
Naturally, our first step will be to familiarize ourselves with the material in question–in this case, the recast commandments of just10 and the commentary offered by its own creators and supporters. So let’s begin our discussion by comparing the original 10 Commandments (ESV translation) with their just10 counterparts:
1) You shall have no other gods before me.
1) Live by priorities.
2) You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
2) Know God.
3) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
3) Take God seriously.
4) Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
4) Catch your breath.
5) Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
5) Keep the peace with your parents.
6) You shall not murder.
6) Manage your anger.
7) You shall not commit adultery.
7) Affair-proof your relationships.
8) You shall not steal.
8) Prosper with a clear conscience.
9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
9) Hold to the truth.
10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
10) Find contentment.
As you can see, just10 attempts to extract and summarize the broader principles which underlie the specific injunctions of the 10 Commandments, and it does so with modest success. Though the pithy principles often fail to strike the bull’s-eye of original meaning (e.g. numbers 2, 4, 5, and 8, to name a few), you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of them are unbiblical or unrelated to their respective predecessors. [Plus, the DVD comes with a “talk” on each commandment by J.John, the creator of just10, so we can assume that a fair amount of extrapolation comes in each those to make up for the relatively brief and imprecise titles.] Most significantly, the ‘harshness’ of the 10 Commandments is completely done away with in just10; you will find nary a no or a not in the entire lot! This, in fact, appears to be the primary thrust behind just10–a desire to present the 10 Commandments in a positive, non-abrasive light so that folks inside and outside the church will be better able to understand them and more inclined to embrace them in their lives. Looking at The Telegraph’s article linked above, the purpose and function of just10 are on clear display:
“…rewritten to reflect modern values…”
“…modified to use up-to-date language and principles…”
“…praised by religious leaders for bringing practical advice to modern congregations…”
“…aimed at providing guidance…”
“Hey look guys, I found contentment! I’m aiming at it to provide you guidance!”
“…J.John claims his commandments enable ‘everyone to understand God’s timeless principles on how we should live…. Along with a lot of people I think about the way that we live nowadays and what leads people to do the sort of things that happened in the riots–whether or not we have forgotten something about a good way of living….'”
“‘…It’s basically a way of presenting the Ten Commandments to help people connect with them in a positive way. Rather than just seeing them as a list of things you shouldn’t do, it is meant to help people live as God intended for our good…. [T]he message is meant to be both a challenge and an encouragement….'” (Rev. Paul Roberts, quoted)
“‘…People now see these commandments not as a set of rules but as a template for living so that we experience God’s best for our lives….'” (pastor Wayne Dulson, quoted)
We can add to these quotes one of the main explanatory blurbs from the just10 website:
“Most people have heard of the Ten Commandments, God’s basic instructions for our lives that, when followed, help us live in freedom every day. These core principles are designed to equip and guide us through life, keeping us on the right path, and helping us navigate through the tough times.
“just10 breaks down the 10 Commandments into ten attractive titles…. J.John has found these titles attractive to both Christians and those seeking, with many realigning their lives to God’s blueprint.”
Again, I think we do well to affirm what is correct here before diving into what is amiss. In the first place, people need to understand that the 10 Commandments (like all Scripture) are as relevant and applicable to our present moment in history as they have been since their original inscription–and relevant not just to murderers and adulterers but indeed to everyone. Furthermore, since the 10 Commandments are the foundation for the entire moral law of the Old Testament, spoken aloud to the whole people of Israel and then written onto tablets by the very finger of God, they are indeed worthy of our special attention. (To give you an idea, some scholars have ably argued that the entire book of Deuteronomy is a sequential exposition of the 10 Commandments.) Additionally, the 10 Commandments are undoubtedly crucial to “[living] as God intended for our good” and to “[experiencing] God’s best for our lives.” As the loving Creator of mankind, God gave us laws that reflect what He knows to be objectively good for us, such that any attempt to live contrary to His prescriptions will inevitably backfire and essentially become a punishment of its own.
But let’s assume for a moment that the original 10 Commandments as found in Scripture–and the other passages that directly relate to them (think Sermon on the Mount)–are somehow lacking in their ability to convey these points clearly or compellingly. [For the record, they are not.] Still, one problem remains. just10 completely misses what is arguably the most important purpose of the 10 Commandments: to expose man’s iniquity, convict him of sin, and point him to Christ Jesus as his only hope for escaping the just judgment of God. Theologians have long understood this to be one of the three basic ‘uses’ of God’s moral law in the Bible. (The other two are the general restraint of evil by civil authorities and the prescription of righteousness for God’s regenerated people. just10 is basically operating on a conflated version of these two.) Calvin speaks of this use of the law at length in his Institutes:
“By exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—[the moral law] admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him. This is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity. For until his vanity is made perfectly manifest, he is puffed up with infatuated confidence in his own powers, and never can be brought to feel their feebleness so long as he measures them by a standard of his own choice. So soon, however, as he begins to compare them with the requirements of the Law, he has something to tame his presumption…. [A]fter he is forced to weigh his conduct in the balance of the Law, renouncing all dependence on this fancied righteousness, he sees that he is at an infinite distance from holiness, and, on the other hand, that he teems with innumerable vices of which he formerly seemed free.
“Thus the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both. He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse…. All that remains for the Law, is to arm the wrath of God for the destruction of the sinner; for by itself it can do nothing but accuse, condemn, and destroy him. Thus Augustine says, ‘If the Spirit of grace be absent, the law is present only to convict and slay us.'” (source)
“Read this. Now look me in the eyes and tell me you’re righteous.”
Let’s take another look at the just10 versions of the commandments above. Would you really call those commandments? They’re so vague and mild… how do I even know when I’ve broken one? Here’s something you’ll never hear: “I don’t think I’ve ‘caught my breath’ recently; I need Jesus’ blood to atone for my sin and turn away God’s wrath!” What God gave as laws for His people from the supreme Lord and Judge of the universe, just10 has softened into “guidelines” and “practical advice” from God the gentle grandfather who doesn’t want to see you hurt yourself. Realizing that the 10 Commandments in their original form pierce like bullets, just10 has turned them into Nerf darts. Compared to bullets, Nerf darts are comfortable; Nerf darts are unimposing; Nerf darts are safe. But God did not intend for the moral law to be seen as “attractive” or an “encouragement,”* and the absence of the concepts of sin and grace from any just10 materials I’ve seen is downright scary. (Believe me, I’ve looked. Then again, maybe they’re saving the ‘condemnation sucker punch’ for the DVD. At this point, I honestly hope so.)
Galatians 3 is a key passage for our understanding of the illuminating and convicting use of the law, which theologians commonly call the ‘pedagogical’ use. After giving the people of Israel the law, God promised them abundant blessings for obedience to the law and severe curses for disobedience to the law; with this context in mind, Paul says that Christ “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (vv13-14). Later in v19 we read, “Why then the law? It was added because of [i.e. in order to show] transgressions.” Finally, Paul brings his point to a head in vv22-24:
“[T]he Scripture [i.e. the Old Testament] imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian [or ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘tutor’–Greek pedagogos] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”
The 10 Commandments point us to Christ! Not just indirectly or coincidentally, either–it was built into them from the very start as their primary purpose. As people who are utterly incapable of obeying God’s law and meeting His divine requirements for us, we have no choice but to look to someone who (A) can perfectly obey God’s law on our behalf and (B) can take the punishment for our disobedience on our behalf. THAT’S MY SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST!!!
Paul sums it all up in Romans 3:21-22: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
“Go ahead, you can say it–my foreshadowing skills are AMAZING!”
So where does that leave just10? In the best case scenario, just10 is simply unnecessary, because the ‘vintage’ 10 Commandments are more than capable of doing their job, especially when attended by the rest of Scripture. (There’s a big difference between expounding a text and revising it, guys!) Unfortunately, we must go further and say that just10 is also harmful in its incompleteness. For people to think they’re getting the full scoop on the 10 Commandments from J.John and company is a grievous error. Sadly, we must go even further and say that just10 runs directly counter to the true 10 Commandments in its suppression of their intrinsically demanding nature as unyielding requirements for man to be able to fellowship with God and avoid His just judgment. The 10 Commandments are glass, not rubber; when you break them (and break them you do), they cut you. And thank God that they do, because how else would you know you needed a Doctor otherwise?
To this end, the 10 Commandments are an invaluable resource for evangelism. As one of my professors has repeatedly said, “The first step in any gospel presentation is to get the person ‘lost.'” Christ’s offer of salvation falls on deaf ears if the person doesn’t realize he needs saving. Jesus Himself took this exact approach–using the 10 Commandments, no less–when he met the rich young man. In his excellent book on evangelism Tell the Truth, author Will Metzger presents a paraphrase of the 10 Commandments that spells out the true heights of their astronomical standards, thus driving home our utter inability to declare any of the following:
1) I have never put anything else before God in my life. I have always given God first place in my thinking, affections, and actions.
2) I have never had any wrong conceptions of God nor worshipped Him in a way not recommended by Him. I have always rejected any wrong imaginations or images of God that I’ve seen or thought and refused to remake God according to my liking.
3) I have never slighted or abused the character of the true God by using His holy name as a swear word or using it in a thoughtless manner, such as by calling myself a follower of God yet not obeying. I have always held the name of God, which signifies His character, in highest respect, invoking it with thoughtfulness and reverence.
4) I have never done less than a full week’s work, and never done any of my normal work on the day set aside to worship God. I have always worked hard and willingly at whatever task is set before me, seeing it as a God-given service each day, and consistently remembered to set apart one day weekly to worship God with others.
5) I have never disobeyed nor dishonored my parents or any others in authority over me. I have always respected and been thankful for my parents and given them honor and willing obedience, as well as other authorities over me.
6) I have never murdered anyone nor had hateful thoughts or taken the slightest pleasure in seeing harm done to another human. I have always thought more of others than I have of myself and practiced the highest regard for human life and justice.
7) I have never practiced any sexual impurity, either physically engaging in sex before marriage or mentally having impure thoughts about someone. I have always treated others’ sexuality with respect and dignity in both my physical actions and mental attitudes.
8) I have never taken anything that doesn’t belong to me nor been deceitful in any attitudes or unwilling to work for my needs. I have always respected the belongings, rights and creations of others and been completely truthful and fair.
9) I have never lied nor slandered another person or group of people. I have always told the truth in every situation regarding every person I have known.
10) I have never been greedy for something that wasn’t mine, nor jealous even of the abilities, looks, or status of others. I have always shared and given of my possessions and myself to others and have been thankful in my heart for what they have and content with my possessions and situation.
That’ll get ’em lost! And if you aren’t convicted afresh after reading those, then you, my friend, are nuts. Praise God for His incredible over-the-top superabundant grace through Christ our Lord! Amen.
“You can thank me later.”**
*To qualify this slightly, passages like Psalm 119 show that it is possible to rejoice in God’s law, in which case it can indeed be seen as “attractive” or an “encouragement.” But the broader biblical witness makes it clear that such delight in God’s law is only possible for someone who has already been justified before God by grace apart from observing the law (i.e. through faith). The joy of the law is only available to those who have been freed from the curse of the law. Thus the pain of contrition and repentance must always come first.
**All images in this post are the original property of Paramount Pictures and Motion Picture Associates, Inc.